Self-reported illness from chemical odors in young adults without clinical syndromes or occupational exposures

Arch Environ Health. Jan-Feb 1993;48(1):6-13. doi: 10.1080/00039896.1993.9938387.


The present survey of young adult college students investigated the prevalence of self-reported illness from the smell of the five following common environmental chemicals (cacosmia): (1) pesticide, (2) automobile exhaust, (3) paint, (4) new carpet, and (5) perfume. Sixty-six percent of 643 students reported feeling ill from one or more of the five chemicals; 15% identified the smell of at least four chemicals as making them ill. Ratings of illness from pesticide correlated weakly but significantly with ratings for the largest number of individual symptoms (9 of 11); daytime tiredness and daytime grogginess both correlated at high levels of significance with illness ratings (on a 5-point scale) for four of the five chemicals. The most cacosmic group (CS) included significantly more women (79%) than the noncacosmic group (NS) (49%); women overall were more cacosmic than men (p < .001), even with the significant covariate of depression. Ratings of cacosmia correlated only weakly with scores for depression (r = 0.16), anxiety (r = 0.08), and trait shyness (r = 0.18) in the total sample. On stepwise multiple regression with cacosmia score as the dependent measure, shyness accounted for 5.8% of the variance, while depression, anxiety, sense of mastery, and repression did not enter the equation. Histories of physician-diagnosed hay fever, but not asthma, were more frequent in the CS (16%) than in the NS group (5%). Without the confounds of chronic illness or specific treatment programs, these data are similar to patterns described clinically for a subset of patients with multiple chemical sensitivities (MCS), including previous data on increased nasal resistance in MCS.(ABSTRACT TRUNCATED AT 250 WORDS)

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Adult
  • Environmental Exposure / adverse effects*
  • Female
  • Floors and Floorcoverings
  • Humans
  • Hypersensitivity / epidemiology*
  • Hypersensitivity / etiology
  • Male
  • Odorants*
  • Paint / adverse effects
  • Perfume / adverse effects
  • Pesticides / adverse effects
  • Prevalence
  • Regression Analysis
  • Risk Factors
  • Sensation Disorders / epidemiology
  • Sensation Disorders / etiology
  • Sex Factors
  • Shyness
  • Smell
  • Vehicle Emissions / adverse effects


  • Perfume
  • Pesticides
  • Vehicle Emissions